Although some may bemoan the industry’s push away from physical media, digital distribution has one irrefutable upside: it has allowed the niche market to prosper. Released from the lofty minimum requirements of boxed publishing and the competition of scarce retail space, the shift in distribution methods has allowed Japanese-born gaming to flourish stateside. The release of Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity for the PlayStation 4 signals the trend careening toward critical mass, adding yet another top-tier doujin to Sony’s growing library.
While not necessary for the enjoyment of Scarlet Curiosity, a cursory awareness of context might add to the game’s enjoyment. The game’s moniker divulges heritage to Project Touhou, a series rooted in shoot-‘em-ups crafted by the one-man programming team known as Team Shanghai Alice. With output that was both prolific and polished, the studio’s efforts spurred a flurry of fan-produced spins-offs across the fighting, platforming, puzzle and role-playing genres. While each has a remarkably divergent set of gameplay mechanics and rules, there are a few unifying elements in Touhou titles, most notably a realm known as Gensokyo, where humans and yokai intermingle.
As the commencement of Scarlet Curiosity, players are re-introduced to Remilia Scarlet, a 500-year-old vampire with a Lestat-like malaise: immortality has instigated a case of acute boredom. Following her debut as a final boss in Touhou Koumakyou: The Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, she went on to be a playable character in a number of Touhou titles, from Immaterial and Missing Power, Imperishable Night, and Scarlet Weather Rhapsody.
Hoping to escape from her existential slump, Remilia reads the local newspaper, discovering blurry photos of a giant creature and sets off to confront the mysterious monster. Scarlet’s curiosity soon devolves into vengeance, when she returns home after her first expedition to find her mansion in shambles, with the colossal creature seemingly the only entity capable of such committing such gratuitous destruction.
Sure, the set-up might lack a transfixing subtext, but the impetus is strong enough to propel Remilia through a series of stages that pay homage to Falcom’s Ys franchise. As players guide Remilia or her throwing dagger wielding hand-maiden Sakuya through a succession of maps and boss battles, bits of exposition are reveal through concise conversations. Adeptly, the dialog is enough to convey a sense of discovery, without slowing the momentum built by Scarlet Curiosity’s action-driven combat.
It’s during these encounters that the title truly shines, with both protagonist and enemies trading blows via energy-based beams and projectiles. Beyond a basic melee attack, Remila and Sakuya’s customizable load-out also extended ranged attacks, dodges, devastating specials, and in the case of the vampire, an attack that can be triggered when descending from a jump. While regulated by a cool-down meter, there’s a definite synergy to be found in your offensive arsenal, as you weaken foes up with ranged strikes before dashing in close to finish them off.
Given the game’s emphasis on combat, you’d think that tedium might be the Remilia and Sakuya toughest opponent. But Scarlet Curiosity manages to keep things fresh. Although the number of enemy types isn’t lofty, when combinations of different opponents are clustered together you’ll be pressed to develop tactics to reduce their lethality, whether it’s keeping your distance from poison-spewing flora or leaping to avoid clouds of bullet hell-like projectiles.
Variety it also rooted in the sporadic acquisition of loot, where a trip to the equipment screen shows a role-playing like breakdown of any statistical advantage your newfound gear might offer. Similarly, you can also change out your attacks, utilizing new skills bestowing after beating the end of stage boss. These battles are poised to be Scarlet Curiosity’s most divisive element. Without any kind of guarding ability, they tend to be a bit simple, with players able to achieve victory by relentlessly assaulting opponents and cracking open any health-replenishing urns when hit points become meager. Don’t be surprised if you crave a bit more strategy or complexity during these stage-punctuating confrontations. On the upside, the game instigated additional play, either through the reveal of a bonus dungeon after completion or disclosing its real conclusion by venturing even further.
Visually, Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity looking stunning on Sony’s system. Sporadic close-ups reveal the detail in the game’s character models, making them look like diminutive Nendoroids come to life. Environmental details also shine, with settings like a bamboo forest that recalls the majesty of Arishiyama or an Edo-era village that evokes rustic charm. While enemy counts can be a bit constrained, the title doesn’t hold back on its projectile count, summoning a curtains of on-screen bullets. But arguably, the biggest pleaser is Scarlet Curiosity’s soundtrack, which provides the type of plaintive piano melodies and lush orchestrations you might hear in an epic role-playing game. Honey Lemon’s work is nothing short of stunning.
Originally released at Comiket 86 two years ago, Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity is a masterful doujin that can hold its own against big budget efforts. Although milieus can be a bit sparse at times, it’s hard to focus on the environments when enemy extermination is so enjoyable. For an evenhanded twenty-dollar price, you get a comforting sense of player progression and the realization that you might be helping other top-notch, fan-crafted works make it stateside.
Touhou: Scarlet Curiosity was played on PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Ankake Spa
Publisher: XSEED Games/Marvelous USA, Inc.
Release date: September 20th, 2016
Price: $19.99 via PlayStation Network